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IBM executive: We’re entering the ‘Talent Age’

by Nancy Johnson

April 5, 2009

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What leadership skills will set an executive apart in today’s fast-changing and competitive job market? IBM executive Jim Corgel shared his insights on this and IBM’s Smarter Planet initiatives as he addressed the March 31 banquet of the Mendoza College of Business chapter of Beta Gamma Sigma, the international honor society serving business programs accredited by AACSB International. Corgel, general manager of IBM’s Independent Software Vendors and Developer Relations, Software Group, holds a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from the University of Notre Dame.

What did you tell the Beta Gamma Sigma honorees about leadership?

I talked about how the real differentiator is leadership skills and the fact that leadership is something that can be learned. It starts with the foundation: honesty, trustworthiness, rapport-building skills, personality and the ability to work in a disciplined fashion.  But to be an exceptional leader, you need more. At IBM, we have a set of 10 leadership competencies, and we train our leadership team in them. I talked about:
  • Informed judgment. You need to develop this so that before you make a decision, you balance urgency with data, real facts and intuition.
  • Horizontal thinking. This is taking a broad point of view on a subject and not staying in your own silo. It means sometimes you have to sacrifice for the common good of your organization, and it means being able to explain your decision to your team.  This takes a lot of practice.
  • Enabling performance. This is mentoring and training young people to replace you some day. There is nothing worse than a leader who doesn’t share downward.
  • Earning trust. This is the hardest because it takes the longest. It is normally reflected in the fact that people outside of the company in your industry have respect for your opinions; competitors have respect for your judgment. What greater example is there than Father Hesburgh? In a community of university presidents, in a community of world leaders, he is someone who earned trust over four decades through good example, predictability, honesty and willingness to share. That makes people outside of your immediate sphere of influence want to seek your counsel.

What other skills are employers seeking?

We have a real skills gap in the ability of our new graduating workforce to handle the breadth and depth and complexity of today’s issues. As baby boomers retire, employers don’t want to just replace those skills; they want different skills. We need a broader, more versatile workforce than ever before. We’re now going into what’s commonly referred to as the talent age. The idea is to take a well-respected degree from any major university and to balance that with a broader set of skills around specific industries, such as specific tools in technology and collaboration. What is important now is being able to easily communicate across a community, not just individual to individual.  For example, how do you take MySpace or Facebook and use its attributes in a business setting? We are advocating on college campuses that we create what we call the T-shaped student, who has a very deep and respected emphasis (the vertical bar) but also has built through skill development a wider variety of capabilities around data analysis, comfort with technology, and the ability to adapt quickly to change.

How can you manage culture in a world that is rapidly changing?

Culture is a dominant force in any business or community, and it is driven by values. I gave the students three values that we uphold in our company. One is to always take the point of view of the client. Focus on what your customer’s success would be measured by, and try to help your client get there.  This prevents inward thinking. It also prevents poor judgments on investments that would make no sense in the marketplace. Another one is to always challenge yourself to innovate. No norm can be accepted for too long without being challenged, whether it’s inventing science or technology. Third, you need to develop trust and confidence in all personal relationships. It means if I send you a simple e-mail, I expect you’re going to reply. When I ask for your advice, I expect you’re going to give me straight talk without an agenda.

What did you tell the students about IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative?

 (The Smarter Planet program is IBM’s initiative to infuse intelligence into the world’s systems, processes and infrastructure to improve quality of life through areas such as power, water management, transportation and health care.) IBM is involved with major governments, telecommunications companies and health-care providers in some important projects around the world. These projects will not happen overnight. They are cultural transformations around green initiatives, such as more efficient use of energy in traditional data centers. It is how to do more with less energy cost. Here is something simple we do: We have over 400,000 IBM employees around the world, and for any eight-hour period, a third of us are sleeping, but through grid technology, employees elsewhere are able to use the power of our systems. I wrapped up by telling them if you like the new television ads that you see for Smarter Planet, send a thank-you note to a Mendoza MBA, Jennifer Ahearn (2002). She leads the IBM team in charge of television advertising. In addition, another Mendoza MBA is involved in the marketing of our Cloud Computing strategy. He is Michael Riegel (1998). IBM has hired more Mendoza MBAs in the last five years than any other employer.

In your opinion, which of the numerous Smarter Planet initiatives are the most crucial?

One is the transformation necessary in health care around digital records. The technology will allow complex virtualization and sharing of diagnostics and expert opinion from doctors who would render opinions based on facts that are easy to ascertain, compile and aggregate. This will not only help the medical industry go paperless, it will be a tremendous advantage in helping people with their need for health care. When you read all these personal bankruptcy statistics, most of it is because people didn’t have adequate health insurance. This would have the most far-reaching effect. Secondly, there is an enormous amount of energy wasted in the power grids. Server technologies and server systems that are only utilized 15 to 20 percent of the time during the day could be used for monitoring dams and public utilities to make them more efficient.

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